Truth and Ideology In Detective Novels

Jamesvansteel By Jamesvansteel, 11th Apr 2015 | Follow this author | RSS Feed
Posted in Wikinut>Writing>Essays

Ideology in daily life often arises out of a need to find patterns and meaning out of the seemingly random complexities of the world. The characters and methods of detective novels can help us understand the role that ideology plays in our own lives.

Truth and Ideology in Detective Novels

Truth and Humanity Through Detection

Ideology in society may be at once one of the most ambiguous and most pervasive influences on men’s lives. While striving to make sense of the complexity inherent in everyday life, ideology arises not only in the individual but also in groups, associations, religions, and nations and often changes over time for each. With such broad roots and variable meanings, what is ideology and how can it apply to literature? In Bennet and Royle’s chapter “Ideology”, they quote an important distinction that helps to clarify, “What we call ideology is precisely the confusion of linguistic and natural reality,” illustrating that rather than an ethical or political system, ideology is a replacement of actual facts with our mental representations of them (200). Within the genre of the detective novel, this definition provides valuable insight into characters and events while at the same time allowing the reader to deconstruct the narrative and create his or her own meaning. In Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Sign of Four and Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time the worldview of the characters share underlying similarities, while the purpose of their detective processes in each narrative reveals something different: an underlying inconsistency and humanity in Holmes’ ideology and a lesson about the relative nature of truth in Christopher’s quest.

In his masterfully crafted novel The Sign of Four, Doyle presents late 19th century London from the perspective of Sherlock Holmes and his assistant Dr. Watson, both relatively bourgeois investigators whose knowledge of the city and understanding of crime aid them immensely in apprehending criminals. Almost immediately, symptoms of Holmes’ ideology are revealed, as he has come to embody what he calls “the science of deduction” viewing the world around him as a puzzle to be solved, “’My mind,’ he said, ‘rebels at stagnation. Give me problems, give me work… I abhor the dull routine of existence. I crave for mental exaltation. That is why I have chosen my own particular profession’” (50). In response to the winding and hidden complexities of modern life, Holmes does not balk or cower away, instead his ideology works within him as a calling to make sense of it all, to challenge the intricate deceptions of criminals and to find logic in the randomness of experience. Rather than an anomaly of turn-of-last-century British culture, Holmes seems to represent an archetype of humanity: the scientist – one who dives wholeheartedly into the mysteries of the world using the scientific method to extract truth and meaning for everyone else. Armed with this ideology, Holmes’ approach to forensic detection takes on a unique nature in that the seemingly innocuous details and minutia of a case become the keys to solving it.

In The Curious Incident on the other hand, Christopher may be seen on the surface as the antithesis of Holmes due to his disability. Christopher’s autism severely inhibits his ability to interpret the world in any rational or scientific sense. Despite this, his ideology may in fact be similar to that of Holmes in terms of their shared analytical and socially dissonant perspectives. Christopher has a great knowledge of the world, one much greater than many of his peers, but his inability to relate to other people’s emotions or motivations hampers his integration with the extremely social world he lives in. His school psychologist provides a way to understand Christopher’s disposition explaining, “I liked maths because it meant solving problems, and these problems were difficult and interesting but there was always a straightforward answer at the end… maths wasn’t like life because in life there are no straightforward answers at the end” (61). Christopher’s everyday life is a struggle to create meaning and find truth in people and the world around him, much like his hero Holmes. Holmes possesses a great knowledge of the world around him as well but with the marked difference of a certain social knowledge; one that is emotionally detached, which he applies to chasing down crafty criminals.
The difference in stated motivation between Holmes and Christopher for solving a crime is obvious on the surface:

“I decided I was going to find out who killed Wellington even though father had told me to stay out of other people’s business. This is because I do not always do what I am told. And this is because when people tell you what to do it is usually confusing and does not make sense.” (14)

but when considering their individual ideologies, both motivations emerge as symptoms of the quest for truth, an innate hunger to make sense of the non-sensible and to apply their unique mental capabilities to the seemingly mundane aspects of life. For Holmes, this ideology reveals a hidden inconsistency and divergent morality in his detection process.

Through substituting his scientific ideology for the established western view of criminality, Holmes turns a black and white crime into a human narrative, fraught with complexity and conflicting motivations. As a detective, he should be concerned with legal justice but rather than condemn his nemesis Jonathon Small, Holmes seeks to understand the story behind his actions and the individuality of his struggle. After having caught the criminal in an exciting riverboat chase which risked the lives and limbs of all involved, Holmes shows compassion to Small and offers to clear him of a murder charge if only Small would share his life story stating “you must make a clean breast of it, for if you do I hope that I may be of use to you. I think I can prove that the poison acts so quickly that the man was dead before ever you reached the room” (128). Holmes’ personal scientific ideology, not the established view of justice, informs his perspective on Small and his interest is in discovering the man behind the crime rather than punishing him for the transgression.
For Christopher, too, it is his ideology or mental worldview that informs his motivations and actions rather than the social consensus of reality. While Holmes uses his scientific rationality to humanize the cold facts of life, Christopher uses his analytical mind to break down the literary illusions that most people apply to everyday life as if their ideologies were observed realities. He demonstrates this harsh dedication to physical truth by dismantling religion, “people believe in God because the world is very complicated… if they thought logically they would see that they can only ask this question because it has already happened and they exist,” throwing aside the imaginary ideologies of cognitively “normal” humans (203). Instead, he favors an ideology which processes the world much in the same way as a computer would, in terms of information, interaction, computing, and probability. Christopher lives in the same world and is exposed to the same information as anyone else would be in his circumstances, but his neurologically influenced ideology creates an entirely unique perspective, and an entirely unique truth, for him to experience.

These underlying ideologies provide a reason for the continued popularity and renewed importance of detective literature. These works are not merely mystery novels providing a few hours of entertainment for the reader, nor are they crude rationalizations for detective work in general and the preservation of the status quo. Detective novels are models for making sense of life and insights into the meaning of truth. Through careful attention they can become paradigms of thought essential to the human experience albeit clouded by our own individual ideologies.

Works Cited
Bennet, Andrew, and Nicholas Royle. An Introduction to Literature, Criticism, and Theory. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Web. 18 Nov. 2013.
Conan Doyle, Arthur. The Sign of Four. Ontario: Broadview Press, 2010. Print.
Haddon, Mark. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. New York: Random House, Inc., 2002. Print.

moderator Mark Gordon Brown moderated this page.
If you have any complaints about this content, please let us know


Add a comment
Can't login?